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Minority Seniority: U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-New Hartford)

posted on April 17, 2009

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Borg: Minority seniority. Despite being in the U.S. Senate's republican minority, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley is using seniority status to wield considerable influence. A conversation with Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, April 17th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The United States Congress isn't lacking for priority items these days. Although the nation, and the world for that matter, seem to be focused on the new democratic president, most of the Obama administration's change philosophy will eventually go to Congress and that's where the republican minority will be trying to exert influence. And among the most senior and therefore most influential members of that minority, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley. He is now completing his fifth term. That puts him 15th in the Senate's seniority ranking. In addition to those 30 years, Senator Grassley served two terms in the House of Representatives. Did I have it counted right?

Grassley: You had it right and I appreciate very much being with you.

Borg: It's nice to have you back. Across the table you know the journalists, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Senator, probably the top news story that's happened in Iowa in recent history involves the state Supreme Court, legalized gay marriage. Let's start with that. What is your take on that decision?

Grassley: My take on the decision is that it is more sweeping than anybody anticipated, it's probably set a pattern maybe for other state supreme courts. As far as I'm concerned it's pretty clear where I've been on the issue of gay marriage for a long period of time because, as you probably know, ten years ago Clinton signed a bill that I voted for called the Defense of Marriage Act and twice in 2006 I believe it was I voted for a constitutional amendment defining traditional marriage and marriage as the traditional one between a man and a woman.

Glover: There's been a lot of discussion around the state since that decision came down about what the next step ought to be. You're a senator so you don't deal directly with the issue but you're an Iowan. What should this state do to react to that decision?

Grassley: Well, if I were asked for advice, and I hope I will be asked for advice ...

Glover: I suspect you will.

Grassley: I would like to consult with people like republican leaders McKinley and Paulsen in the legislature, I'd like to consult with bipartisan groups outside the legislature like Pastor Ratliff's group, like Chuck Hurley's group because I think that not only consulting with republican leaders but I think we need to consult with groups that would tend to be bipartisan because I think an issue like this has a great deal of bipartisan concern and so if there is going to be any sort of action taken contrary to the supreme court's decision then it should be to seek as broad of a consensus as possible.

Glover: Should republicans push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision if they can't get support?

Grassley: You know, you probably know one time when I came to the Iowa legislature and demanded that the republican leaders make ethanol a mandate. I have adopted recently, since then, when they told me to go back to Washington and worry about my own business, of consulting with republican leaders and so I am in a position to want to consult with them and find out where I can be helpful and I think we have to do it in very much a consensus way and it ought to be a thoroughly planned way and I don't think it should be planned just for this year or next year because this legislature is about over. I think you ought to plan what are you going to do now, what are you going to do during the next election for the new legislature and then assuming you're successful there what are you going to do. And then afterwards are you going to have the normal general election or are you going to have a special election.

Glover: So, one final point just to make sure we know where you are on this, you favor a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage?

Grassley: The federal constitution.

Glover: And a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage?

Grassley: I would say at this point in a consulting fashion with other people who I believe favor that and if I'm consulting with them that would put me in the condition of wanting to work in a cooperative way to see what can be done to modify the court decision.

Henderson: This past week there were tea parties across the state and across the country. What do you think generated those? Is that a true gauge of the mood of the American electorate?

Grassley: If I could answer your question from the point of view of just finishing 33 town meetings during the spring break and not a whole lot different than 25 or 24 town meetings back during the February recess I would say that there is a united republican party that is united on outrage about what's going on in Washington. Now, some of that outrage carries over from the 2006 election when we republicans were thrown out of majority because we detracted from the fiscal principles of our party and so it's not expressed just against democrats, I think mostly against democrats, some fear what is happening fiscally and so you're seeing then in the nation as a whole through the tea parties a reaction similar to what I've seen in my own town meetings, although my town meetings are small, we talk about a lot of subjects but this outrage comes up of the legacy we're leaving for our grandchildren.

Henderson: So, what is the message of the Republican Party? Is it a fiscal message? Or is it a social message, social conservatism related to gay marriage and other issues like that?

Grassley: Well, it can't be just one message, one or the other, it's got to be both. And on the two things you brought up probably between both groups there's 90% of agreement. So, you get back to the point of what is uniting the party -- the party is being united because there is reaction within our party of fear of what's going on in Washington, D.C. right now.

Henderson: Do you see any dangers in outrage? Outrage didn't serve democrats very well in 2004. They were outraged about the 2000 election and the election of George W. Bush, didn't really pay off at the polls in 2004.

Grassley: I think it's how it's handled. If it is handled in a diplomatic way and if it is handled in a way where people have alternatives and are seeing that it's based on principle I think you would find that what's going on in the tea party thing of yesterday, I should say April 15th, you would find that it's similar to what the Jarvis movement in California was which started out as just a California movement but in the year '78, '79 and '80 was swept across the country. That brought Reagan into power.

Borg: Assess your own candidacy in light of what you've just said, outrage you say among some of the electorate and the people that you're meeting with. You're up for re-election now and do you think that outrage is going to pay off for you because last November we saw a democratic sweep?

Grassley: Well, you don't mean for just me personally.

Borg: I'm talking about your own candidacy.

Grassley: My own candidacy -- well, at this point, you never know when you vote how it comes out at the grassroots later on, but I think that my votes against the GM bailout, my vote against the stimulus bill, the second round of the bailout, the appropriation bill that had a 9% increase over the 3% increase for the first five months of this year and stimulus, I think that this has responded, has paralleled the outrage that I'm seeing. So, I go to my town meetings and that outrage isn't expressed against me, see.

Borg: Yet there are some within your own party, I'm talking about specifically now and not about stimulus and other votes but about your statements after the gay marriage decision game down from the Supreme Court, I'm talking about something else now. Bill Salier said he's not conservative like he used to be. What about that as you run for re-election now? Is there a section of your party that doesn't think you're conservative enough?

Grassley: Well, the statistics wouldn't bear that out nor the polls bear that out as you see in recent Des Moines Register polls, as an example, and my own polling. You see not any split along that line. Nothing has changed in the years I've been in the United States Senate, I've always been a spokesman for conservatism and in regard to some of the issues that you just mentioned. My votes, again, as I said to AP that I voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, I'm on record strongly in support of traditional marriage so where might the differences come with social conservatives, as an example. Also I could add my vote on abortion over 30 years, I could add to that a very favorable voting record from the Family Research Council ...

Borg: So you think you're solid with the party?

Grassley: At my town meetings and also a week ago you had our state chairman say the same thing, that as he's gone around to 20 or 25 central committees and as I've gone to my town meetings there hasn't been any of that expressed that you have referred to.

Glover: Senator, let's step back a little bit, you've assessed your own candidacy, I'd like to get you to assess the health of the Republican Party in this state. There are some who suggest that the party has fallen on something of a hard patch here. Democrats have got about 111,000 more registered voters than you do, they're even starting to raise more money than a lot of republicans. Give me an assessment of the health of the Republican Party in this state.

Grassley: Well, right now we're very much in a rebuilding mode. We probably lost two years that we should have got a message from the 2006 election which is more of a national issue than just an Iowa issue because I think what you bring up about Iowa, I know you want to speak about Iowa, but I don't think it's a whole lot different than a rebuilding effort that the republican party has got to go through nationally but you'll want to remember that we've been helped a great deal in just three months by the new administration, more importantly, not so much from what the President has done or hasn't done that has helped us republicans, but what Pelosi and Reed have done or not done in their irresponsibility and their partisanship that has united the party, borrow too much, spend too much, tax too much is what their budget is, what they're spending, tripling the national debt in the course of the next ten years if we're on the path where we are and things of that nature has very much made the job of republican unity and rebuilding much easier. But we also have to develop a very positive program. But the most important thing is don't forget our roots, don't forget our basic principles because if you look at why we're not in as good a shape now as we were ten years, twelve years from '94 to 2006 it's because we moved away from our basic principles and we were not defeated by democrats as we were defeated by republicans fleeing from us and the point is to get them back and strengthen the party.

Glover: There is a debate internally within the Republican Party -- is it message or is it mechanics? In other words, do you have to polish the message, deliver the message a little better, a little clearer or do you have to focus on the candidate because I'm thinking about absentee balloting, voter turnout efforts, which is it?

Grassley: A party does not have a reason for existing if it doesn't have a message and idealism that it stands for so that's very important. On the other hand there is a lesson to learn from the fact that maybe ten years prior to the last election, maybe fifteen years, we were way ahead of the democrats technically and we found that Obama left us in the dust in the last election so we have to do a lot of social networking in order to help us but we also have to do the nuts and bolts and that is the hard work of registering voters.

Glover: What is your role in all that? You've got your own campaign to worry about.

Grassley: Well, first of all I think it's no different than what I expressed on some of these issues you want to bring up. I'm not going to dictate to the party but I want to work with the party and most importantly the extent to which I can be a messenger, the extent to which I can do what I traditionally do during elections even when I'm up for election, work for republican candidates by appearing with them, writing letters for them, doing ads for them, if you just want your picture taken with me to put in the paper, things of that nature. I think I make a point of helping at least 30 legislative candidates over a period of an election and also I have the capability on a national basis through the Hawkeye pack of raising a lot of money, most of it to be used for my fellow U.S. Senators that are up for election because that is part of my leadership because of my seniority but also I have the capability of using some of that money for republican candidates. And if you would check the records you would find that the Hawkeye pack has put a lot of money into a few senate and house races in the state of Iowa legislative races.

Henderson: You mentioned shaping a message. You made reference to a part of the udder of a cow that if I had made that reference my mother would have washed my mouth out with soap. Do you regret some of the things that you've said recently which have gained you national attention?

Grassley: I shouldn't have to regret it at all and let me tell you why, because I said those very same things in a news conference October 1st that maybe even your network was participating in because you participate in a lot of our stuff, and I said it also on the senate floor, some of the things about the Japanese culture, as an example, never heard anything about it and all of a sudden I'm being interviewed by a half hour interview live with WMT Radio, Cedar Rapids and it gets all over the world. I don't understand what's wrong with you journalists if it hits the news now yet it didn't hit the news October 1st. But what I was trying to do is obviously not propose people to commit suicide but I do think that when the taxpayers are keeping a company alive that the corporate executives run it into the ground that they ought to at least have some apology in the Japanese style.

Glover: I'd like to get you to switch to a little bit different topic. I'm going to make the assumption you just might make it through next year and you might be around for the next presidential election. Talk a little bit about Iowa's role in the next presidential election. It's going to be a republican show, you make the assumption that Barack Obama won't have a primary challenger, will Iowa continue its role in republican politics being the lead off state?

Grassley: If I'm wrong correct me on this but I think the decision has already been made that we're first in the nation, aren't we?

Glover: The decision has been made and those decisions are never final, Senator. There will be a debate about it.

Grassley: Well, this is something both republicans and democrats in Iowa share a view on. We want Iowa to be first in the nation. Democrats even want without Obama having an opponent still to be first in the nation. I think we are in a position to do that and I think our state chairman has had some conversations with people in Washington. So, if you're asking me what I expect, I expect that to be the case and if there's anything I can do to make sure that that's the case I want to do my role as an active republican leader to make that happen.

Glover: And I expect that somewhere between now and the next presidential election there will be a challenge from another state like Michigan. What can you do to help keep Iowa's caucuses first? Obviously the party will be working in that direction but you're a pretty influential guy in Washington, what will you do?

Grassley: There's only two things -- maybe there's more, if there is tell me but I can think of two because of what we've done in the past -- continue to do it on a bipartisan basis, that means working with Senator Harkin for me or with republican house and democrat house members in Iowa. Secondly, each of us separately lobbying our own national committeewomen beyond Iowa if that be the case because the decision is going to be made by the national committee.

Borg: You mentioned your vote on the stimulus package a few minutes ago. President Obama this past week said he sees glimmers of economic recovery. Are you thinking that once that stimulus package, despite the objections that you had, kicks in do you see it now as working, that once all the full funding kicks in that there's going to be economic recovery?

Grassley: There is going to be economic recovery but I can't relate it to the stimulus. The stimulus might do some good towards that but I think that you've got to look at it historically in a free market system where we've had eleven recessions since World War II and more before then and each recession we came out stronger than we were and a recession is a steam valve for a free economy. The opposite is a Bolshevik 1917-1990 where if you don't want recessions let the government run everything but nobody has anything. We're entrepreneurial and we're going to come out of it stronger. I do see light at the end of the tunnel but I can't relate it exactly to the stimulus. It's more related to the structural underbelly of our economy which is basically sound. Now, McCain said that during the election and he was laughed at for doing it but within the last month Obama said exactly the same thing because there is reason to have faith in this great country of ours, the United States of America.

Henderson: The other thing the President said this week was that it's time to simplify the tax code. You sit on the Senate Finance Committee, the panel which writes tax law. Do you think there is a potential to simplify the tax code? Can it be done?

Grassley: It can be done if the President is willing to go around the country and spend a great deal of time, similar to what Bush did without success in the final analysis in 2005 on Social Security, giving 50 speeches. You've got to bring it to the attention of people, why it needs to be done and the results of it. He has hurt the plan a little bit by waiting until December 31st this year for a report. That puts us into next year, the election year. It's pretty hard to get some of that stuff done that's controversial during an election year, it's not going to be easy.

Glover: Something else the President has done is the President just recently traveled to Mexico and one of the issues he talked about is what's going on at the Mexican border. There's lots of drugs flowing into the country and lots of guns flowing into Mexico. What can this country do to stop the flow of guns into Mexico that has left the drug cartels better armed than the Mexican Army?

Grassley: Two things that we're doing now that need to be completed, get the thousands of people for the border patrol that have been authorized, get them trained sooner because you authorize them by the thousands but they get on the job by the hundreds. Get more border patrol out there and get more National Guard involved with the border patrol and then finish the fence. The fence is about finished. Finish the fence and then something new and that new is we spent all of our time looking at vehicles or other transportation coming into this country, we've never looked at what goes out and we're going to have to start spending resources to check what is going out of the country so we can stop the transfer of arms.

Glover: Is gun control such a toxic issue that that's not going to be a part of this debate, we're not going to do anything about the kinds of weapons that are manufactured and sold in this country?

Grassley: I think some people may try to make it an issue but there's been democrats previously had made it a big issue but the 2000 election, so think in terms of 2000, prior to that during the Clinton administration year after year after year there were always attempts to make gun restriction an issue in the Congress. Since that 2000 election democrats have studied that election, they saw that they lost a lot of states because of gun issue, I don't see very many democrats bringing up gun issue and so consequently no and then that is supported by the supreme court case a year ago that said once and for all and for the first time in 230 years that the right to bear arms is an individual right as contrary to a lot of people who were trying to analyze that it was only the militia under the second amendment to bear arms. So, the right to own guns now and less opportunity to put restrictions on the Congress is stronger now than ever before.

Henderson: Another foreign policy issue, the President has committed more troops to Afghanistan. Do you agree with the mission he's outlined?

Grassley: Only because the person in charge of it is General Petraus. He succeeded with his plan in Iraq and I have great confidence he can make it happen in Afghanistan except I think it's going to be more difficult in Afghanistan because of the lack of transportation and roads, it's a whole different terrain.

Glover: Let's come back home again for a second. One of the top issues I've seen in every poll that is on the minds of voters is healthcare and yet Congress seems almost genetically unable to tackle that topic. Is the drive strong enough this time that Congress is going to enact something significant in healthcare?

Grassley: You haven't been reading the newspaper since November. There's been two committees, one headed by Senator Kennedy, the other one headed by Senator Baucus, the health committee and the finance committee. I serve on the finance committee. Senator Baucus and I by our respective parties are negotiating that issue for the finance committee. Senator Kennedy, Senator Enzi the republican ranking there is doing it in that committee. We have most of the heavy weight but we'll get together I believe. I have heard Senator Baucus so often say it needs to be bipartisan, it needs to be passed by 70 to 80 votes, not by a mere 51 which would be reconciliation which would be a partisan document and I think we have a record, at least when I was chairman, every bill but two getting out of committee by bipartisan and all but those two being signed and under Baucus all the bills getting out being bipartisan and all signed except one veto.

Glover: So, it happens this year?

Grassley: We expect it to happen in July, get a bill out of committee in June. If we don't get it done this year it won't be done for four years. Next year is an election year, the third year of a term is the presidential race, it won't get done if we don't get it done this year.

Borg: We have less than a half a minute. Do you like the job that you see Tom Vilsack doing so far?

Grassley: Absolutely. I had a conversation with him of some suggestions I made to him and he's probably more thorough in getting done what I want done than if I told him exactly how to do it. So, I think he's doing a good job.

Borg: Thanks for spending time with us today.

Grassley: Thank you.

Borg: We're going to be back next weekend at the usual Iowa Press airtimes, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

Tags: Congress Iowa politics